Q&A: Gautam Reghunath and PG Aditiya are Looking to Shake up the Agency Experience

Gautam Reghunath and PG Aditiya

In October of last year, after an impressive run at Dentsu Webchutney, Gautam Reghunath and PG Aditiya departed the agency to start one of their own – leaving behind a creative legacy that still lives on today as the agency’s work with VICE on “The Unfiltered History Tour” continues to light up the award show circuit as we speak.

Reghunath first joined Dentsu Webchutney in 2010 as an account manager, eventually rising to CEO, while Aditiya joined as a copywriter in 2012 before exiting the agency as Chief Creative Officer.

In April of this year, the pair launched a new agency called Talented with the goal of creating something that was a departure from the legacy model they left behind.

 
 

At the time they said: “We love the agency business. But the world certainly doesn’t need another advertising agency,” adding “What we believe it does need is a serious re-imagination of the agency experience – both for clients and for the talent in advertising. ”

So far, so good says the pair. Talented is now 30 people strong, the core of the founding team is starting to take shape, and they’ve already produced two campaigns.  We recently caught up with Gautum and PG to hear more.


When you launched Talented back in April, you said that the industry needed a “re-imagination of the agency experience.” It’s still early on but how is that going?

GR: It certainly does. It’s really up to agencies like us to structure ourselves in the best possible way to make our workplaces nourishing creative environments. We’re about 30 people now and the core of our founding team is taking shape. One of our first moves was to re-look at base pay for a lot of levels and positions. Talented is also one of the first agencies in our part of the world to have stock options in the picture, so that’s already been a refreshing conversation with a lot of those who’ve joined.

 
 

We see upwards of 20% of the agency to be employee-owned over the coming years. It’s important to us that those who build their careers here in the long-term have enough skin in the game. There’s so much we can learn from our friends in tech.

But for most of our ideas to succeed, all of us here will need to leave behind some of the agency business baggage we’ve been carrying with us over the years and be prepared to try and innovate and experiment in how we work. A lot of our focus is on how to build stronger, tighter, more efficient teams. This means our internal structures may tend to look different than from usual agency teams: more creatives and less project managers.

So, yes, certainly a lot of self-reflection, a lot of experimentation, and trying to build with intention. All of which we hope translates into an absolutely quality client, partner & employee experience.

You both spent over a decade at Dentsu Webchutney working your way up through the ranks. That’s some deep ties. Now that you’re a few months into your own thing. What’s it been like finding your management and creative grooves in an entirely new setting?

PG: We were on to some good ideas during our time with Dentsu Webchutney which we’ve taken forward at Talented – autonomy for junior and mid-level colleagues, being generous with credit and celebrating teams over individuals. The new ideas we’re experimenting with are creative excellence in a remote-active environment (this is turning out to be more challenging than we thought – we currently work out of office twice a week and our colleagues are spread across many cities), radical candor internally, with our clients, freelance specialists and production partners (this has worked out surprisingly well) and setting an annoyingly high-standard for our creative product (again – so far so good).

“We see upwards of 20% of the agency to be employee-owned over the coming years. It’s important to us that those who build their careers here in the long-term have enough skin in the game. There’s so much we can learn from our friends in tech.”

We’ve already produced two campaigns we’re very proud of. Our first was (what is now one of their most popular films) for Tanishq – India’s leading jewelry brand (part of the Tata Group) and secondly – the launch of RazorpayX Payroll – a game-changing piece of software for India’s startups.



How about the freedom of being independent for the first time? How does it feel having “The buck stops here” plaque on your own desks now?

GR: Webchutney’s a remarkable company that offered us both opportunities we couldn’t have dreamt of. There are so many memories at Webchutney where we’d walk into meetings (mid-2010s) & clients would be surprised we were still network-owned. Why we felt indie even after dentsu was simply because all of our leadership teams at Webchutney helped make sure it was all about the work. Less manoeuvring. More doing.

Coming back to Talented, the ‘independent’ feeling is obviously a double-edged sword. Do we miss being able to offer certain services that are a direct function of our agency size? Yes. But do we miss the tiring processes, quality-dilution in the work & risk-averse mentality that also plague large agencies? Absolutely not.

You’ve talked about having a “flat-ish hierarchy” while posing very intriguing questions about leadership growth within the agency and problems with “designation hogging.” That’s quite a profound quandary. Can you talk more about that?

PG: Our industry’s cancer mostly comes from sr. management misusing titles as a posturing device. This has led to a counter-culture of leaders publicly dismissing their actual titles (segue to CXOs whose bios read ‘Cheerleaders’). While it signals good leadership traits like approachability and ownership in what they’re building – to their junior colleagues – it’s also leaders exercising their ‘privilege to reject’. A privilege they don’t yet have.

On a personal note, I remember feeling overjoyed when receiving my first promotion to Sr. Copywriter. And then again, years later, a similar feeling when I made CD. By the time I was offered the title of NCD/CCO, it had stopped mattering. Celebrating it, even with my bathroom mirror, felt glib. I reckon Gautam felt the same.

“The ‘independent’ feeling is obviously a double-edged sword. Do we miss being able to offer certain services that are a direct function of our agency size? Yes. But do we miss the tiring processes, quality-dilution in the work & risk-averse mentality that also plague large agencies? Absolutely not.”

I think this statement rings true to a lot of us in Talented’s founding team: ‘Titles matter till a point in one’s career. And one shouldn’t have them once they stop mattering’. This means imagining levels within junior & mid-management but with a flattish hierarchy in our sr. management. So that you can still feel the thrill of earning a promotion in your early years while simultaneously knowing that in our leadership – only pay, portfolio & responsibilities matter. Not titles.

Having said all this – I guess it’s not uncommon for most early-stage startups to virtue-signal and have egalitarian ideas around topics like hierarchy. I do hope we figure out equitable policies around this as we grow.

What are some lessons you learned working with a global operation like Dentsu that you’ve taken with you to Talented and what are some lessons you left behind in your management and creative approaches?

PG: Advertising doesn’t need a better version of the agency job. It needs a better version of the in-house creative job. Most large agencies aren’t trying to create it. In our minds, this job is very simply one that offers the widest range of creative work for which they’re credited generously, without burning them out, while paying them their fair market rate. All we want to do is meet these very sensible expectations.

“Another pet peeve of mine has been that most large legacy agencies are structured for a very tiny group of people to bear most of the glory and the upside. We most certainly want to leave these 20th-century notions behind.”

GR: A simple guideline we have for everyone at Talented is this innocently-named code: ‘No follow-ups’. From our conversations, brilliant account management talent at legacy agencies spend around 40% of their time following-up with others (esp internally with creatives). Our business model isn’t different from a legacy agency but our job descriptions are. There’s no space for creatives who need following-up or account managers who aren’t excited about spending their saved time as business strategists (tbh, the real job) at Talented.

Another pet peeve of mine has been that most large legacy agencies are structured for a very tiny group of people to bear most of the glory and the upside. We most certainly want to leave these 20th-century notions behind.

“The Unfiltered History Tour” is tearing it up across the awards circuit. That’s quite the grand exit for you both and must feel great. Forgive me for wrapping this up on a bit of a downer question, but… What’s next?

GR: My co-founder is a genius, so I’m not worried. He’s always been my CCO of the year, but now The One Show agrees – they just named him APAC CCO of the year too. We’re also lucky to have the majority of the core The Unfiltered History Tour team from Webchutney now as part of Talented’s founding team. I also think it’s awesome that it turned out to be one of our last few pieces of work at Webchutney.

We’ve been thinking, dreaming and planning for its best version for the better part of two years now and its success, and not just in the awards circuit, has been such a high for all of us.

PG: As I write this, we are shortlisted for a Titanium Lion. Wish us luck! When we won our first Lion in 2019 – I was told we don’t enter the true hall of fame till we win it thrice, over three years, continuously. This year, with VICE’s Unfiltered History Tour, we will make it to that hall of hat-tricks. Proudly.

I’m personally overjoyed it’s happened through a campaign that’s introduced the discourse around colonialism to the creative world. VICE is an incredible client partner and they deserve the best thinking. I’m confident to top this in terms of effort, idea & impact with what’s in store for its future. More on that, soon!


Quick Hits:

Gautam:

Book everyone in the industry should read: It’s not really advertising but I’ve been re-reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror. It’s one of my all-time favourites – mostly essays covering internet culture, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Favorite show you’re watching lately: Now that I’ve finished every last British cop drama ever available on Netflix, I’ve been bingeing the new season of Borgen.

One album you would take to a deserted island: A decade in the sun by The Stereophonics. No, wait. An Anderson Paak mixtape.

Something you want to learn or wish you were better at: Playing the piano, being able to speak better Kannada, keeping in touch, cycling more.  

PG:

Book everyone in the industry should read: (Title & Author)

Hey Whipple, Squeeze This – Luke Sullivan

Favorite show you’re watching lately: Not a show but a couple of podcasts I’m enjoying:

  • Black T-shirts (Brent Smart and Adam Ferrier)
  • Uncensored CMO (Jon Evans)

(Discovered them both because they featured Nils Leonard – co founder of Uncommon London. Nils is an inspiration & a man-crush. Black T-shirts also has great episodes with Cindy Gallop (will kill for an internship under her) and Fer Machado (dream client)).

One album you would take to a deserted island: 

Customized playlist from Tame Impala

Something you want to learn or wish you were better at:

  • Research
  • Networking
  • Guitar
  • Hindi
  • Keeping in touch

Related